For about 18 years of my 30 year IBM career, I was an instructor and instructional content developer. The classes that I taught were attended by new hires as well as employees being retrained as part of a career change. My courses provided the path for these students to become programmers at IBM. Today, I guess you would call them software engineers.
The entire curriculum for these soon-to-be IBM programmers could cover a period of months. The first day of class included the traditional time for everyone (students and instructors) to stand up and introduce themselves. I usually just said, I’m Charlie and I will be teaching you XYZ. The students would stand up and list their entire list of degrees and credentials.
About a week or two into one of these classes, I was walking down the hall with a student who had a PhD; in Comp Sci I presume. In his eagerness to get to know me, he asks “Charlie — what was your doctoral thesis on?”
I replied “…never got my PhD”.
After a short silence, while turning down another hallway, he asks “Oh… Well what did you do for you Masters?”
I smiled, as he tried to keep up with my brisk walking pace and replied “…never got my Masters”.
By that point he appeared somewhat frustrated. He scrunched up his face and asked “Uh… where did you get your Bachelors?”
I stopped and looked at him saying “I never completed my degree. When I joined IBM, I was just 20 years old, married and going to college. I was able to get my associates degree… but never my Bachelors… college bored me… I preferred to spend time with my kids instead of sitting through endless hours of classes.”.
Looking even more perplexed… he choked and sputtered “But… How did you learn all of this? You just lectured all morning about queuing theory without looking at any notes! “
I replied “Do you know what’s on the third floor?” (Note: We were on the 4th floor of a 4 story IBM building in Kingston, NY.)
He smiled and responded “…of course… the cafeteria!”
I laughed and added “…and there is also a library!” And what a library it was; packed full of every text book ever printed on computer architecture, programming languages, as well as software design, and development.
That was before the days of google and online searching.
I explained to him that I spent every spare moment I had down in the library reading any technical content that I could get my hands on. I also spent hours upon hours reading IBM publications known as the IBM Systems Reference Library. The pages of my SRL collection were all marked up and dog-eared; with notes in the margins to reference pages in other documents. Those notes were the original low tech hyperlinks.
In the context of that conversation with that student many years ago — it seems appropriate to share with you now — my fellow LinkedIn’ers [Note to Theropod Readers — this article was originally posted on LinkedIn] — the three approaches to success that I have tried to live by in my professional life. These approaches made it possible for me to thrive in a 30 year IBM career. And again — even more so — for the past 20 years [now 25 years] since my IBM retirement date.
These three approaches or principles have made it possible for me to thrive and enjoy many opportunities as an IBM employee as well as returning back to IBM as a consultant. Well ok — contractor — but consultant does have a nice ring to it. These approaches also helped me to succeed at many other companies including Information Builders, Millennia III, Harte Hanks Interactive and LiveTechnology.
I wish I had the foresight to have articulated and shared these with that student back in the halls of IBM many years ago. To me — it came natural… just seemed like common sense. But just in case I have found the magic bullets for success… here they are for your consideration and possible adoption: Three Approaches to Success
- Suck at your job
“Suck at your job” involves sucking up all the information, experience and advice you can. Be a sponge. In my day (back in the 60's), I relied on books and documents. Today we/you are fortunate enough to have the internet as a research tool.
In order to constructively suck at your job by sucking up information and benefiting from the experience of those around you — you need to ask questions. But don’t drive everyone around you nuts with constant questions.
Be proactive in your quest for knowledge. In meetings, take notes of unfamiliar terms so you can google them later. If you don’t understand how something works, comb through whatever documentation exists, read the code, then go to the guru with questions based on your research.
When you go to the guru — make it obvious that you did some research. Refer to your sources as you pose questions to those in the know. They will love the fact that you did some leg work and are not depending on them for a total brain dump. You will gain their respect and support because you investigated and sucked up what ever information you could before hand.
SOS — Seek opportunities steadfastly, seek out and take advantage of opportunities when you see them. My start in programming came about while I was a computer operator in a test environment. The programmers that I worked with had been asked by their management to create a program to accomplish some task that would create a report describing the interaction of modules within the system. The programmers told the manager it was impossible to do. In reality, they just didn’t want to do it!
So I did some investigation, came up with a way to accomplish what the manager wanted and wrote a program in assembler language to provide the report he desired. Then I handed it off to one of the programmers on my team (so as not to offend them or to put him in an uncomfortable position) and we delivered the results to management.
As a result — the programmer and I both received Outstanding Contribution Awards from IBM. The programmer got a couple thousand dollars and I got a couple hundred.
Dollar wise it did not seem fair, but the end result was that I became known as someone who would seek opportunities and was ready to take on responsibility for challenging tasks. It also set the stage for me to actually go to IBM’s “programming school” which then resulted in a promotion to a programming title. That also laid the foundation for me to eventually become an IBM Instructor.
AAAAA — Adopt an Age Agnostic Attitude by respecting your elders and your youngers. Those older folks have a lot to offer in terms of experience; with both technical and interpersonal skills. They know how to get things done; even if it’s based on the way they did it 50 years ago! Likewise those younger folks have the capacity to ask why? They are naturally rebellious against doing everything as it was done in the past and are ready to be adopters of newer better ways. Together — if they respect and listen to each others views and perspective — a lot can be accomplished. Case in point. I just finished a two year assignment where I was involved in crafting and helping to deliver a cloud message seeking to get cloud concepts and technology adopted. The three techies in our group basically represented three generations. At 70, I was the old man. There was a 50 something who would remind me just about every day that he was 4 years old when I was hired by IBM. But he also got a taste of old age jokes from the guy who was in his 30’s. That same 30 something guy would cue up a track of ragtime player piano music to play over the conference room bluetooth speakers just about every time I started a dissertation on how things were done on the mainframe in days gone by.
But despite that good humored and often politically incorrect harassment — we bridged our generation gap by respecting and seeking each other’s input and perspective. If you respect the source of experience and knowledge without passing it off as just the ramblings of that old guy who should have retired by now or the impetuous opinions of a millennial; you will have access to a wealth of knowledge that can help your career.
Of course, as the fine print at the bottom of all those advertisements state… your actual mileage may vary if you try these approaches. Likewise, don’t be afraid of your instinct. You are in the trenches now. Observe what goes on around you and find a mentor; but do your homework first.
Good Luck. It’s your success — make it happen !
The author has 50 years of experience in various aspects of operating systems, and application design, development, and testing. He has contributed to the development of technical and end user curriculum as well as associated training materials for IBM and other technology companies. Charlie served as an IBM technical instructor and course developer for 18 years during his 30-year IBM career, with a focus on the internal logic and concepts associated with z/OS and VM. He has co-authored four IBM Redbooks publications including “Creating IBM z/OS Cloud Services”.